· Vatican City ·

The second Sunday of Advent in the year of Matthew, 4 December

A menagerie of the spirit

 A menagerie of the spirit  ING-048
02 December 2022

After the spiritual wakefulness of the first Sunday of Advent, the message of the second and third revolves around the witness of John the Baptist. Often, in the Sunday readings in general, a stern Old Testament first reading is gentled by the gospel. Today the situation is reversed: the prophet Isaiah’s vision of messianic peace and harmony is followed by the uncompromising and insistent moral demands of the Baptist who proclaims the wrath to come, the axe at the root of the trees, and being thrown into the fire. In fact, thrown into the fire are the last four words of today’s gospel. So, in this second Sunday of Advent, we are sternly bidden to confess our sins and repent, or else …

Let’s wander off, however, in another direction: do you like animals? Various fathers of the Church, the monk-pope St Gregory the Great for example, meditate on their allegorical meaning. Directly or indirectly, today’s readings contain a veritable menagerie of animals, sixteen in all. The Isaiah passage speaks of twelve, underlining the conflict between them: wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf, lion and fatling, cow and bear, lion (again) and ox, asp and adder. Six are wild and dangerous to human beings, while the other six are domesticated and useful. A supernatural harmony is imposed upon them by the shepherding of a little child. What are these animals? The text suggests nations and we know that our world has never lacked conflict. But could they not also be something within each of us, symbols of the unruly or the good tendencies that require not abolition but resolution? The Psalmist reminds us that men’s anger will serve to praise you.

In the gospel, the wild figure of John appears in the wilderness of Judaea. He too is associated with animals: the camel that provides his garment and perhaps his leather belt, the locusts that feed him, and the bees that furnish his “dessert”. The camel is a domesticated animal though with an independent spirit; the locusts and bees are wild. In the Old Testament, the locust swarm is a symbol of destruction, and bees are to be treated with caution. Both, nevertheless, contribute to the well-being of the prophet crying in the wilderness whose voice bids us prepare for the one who is to come.

The fourth animal of the gospel is the viper: You brood of vipers, says John to the Pharisees. This reptile, as so often, is a symbol of deceit and menace. Nevertheless, just as the Pharisees may repent and be saved, so may we too, we who are not immune to the poison of hypocrisy. In the fourth gospel, the viper itself becomes the symbol of salvation: as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.

Meditating on the menagerie of this Advent Sunday, we find a deep hope, an unexpected possibility. Today’s second reading from Romans assures us that we might have hope and prays that the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.

Fr Edmund Power, osb